At what point does it all need to be shut down?

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MLB and most professional sports are returning, but are we at a time where it should be shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic? 

With the first pitch of the Yankees and Nationals game last Thursday night, Major League Baseball is officially back.

The NBA followed closely behind just a few days ago. Several hours before game time last week, it was announced that Nationals’ star Juan Soto would miss the long-awaited inaugural game of the 2020 season. The outfielder will remain out indefinitely after testing positive for COVID-19, the virus that is responsible for the pandemic that the nation is still in the middle of. Soto will not be able to return to baseball activities until he receives back-to-back negative tests for the virus.

In the meantime, the teammates and coaching staff that he has been in close contact with for the past few weeks will start their season. At times they will be standing just inches away from players and coaches from other NL and AL East teams. Along with umpires, clubhouse staff, bus drivers, flight attendants, and countless other unnamed people who make the sport run.

As of yet, none of Soto’s teammates are currently carriers of the virus, assuming that their most recent test wasn’t a false negative, an event that some research indicates happens 20-30% of the time. There’s plenty of reasons for a test to register a false negative, from a faulty individual test to the viral load in the subject not being potent enough for the test to register. Hopefully, no other members of the Nationals’ organization are carriers.

Despite their best efforts, it is merely impossible for MLB to eliminate the risk of any person contracting the virus and suffering the effects of it. Braves star Freddie Freeman suffered from a 105-degree fever and was praying for his life as he battled the infection. Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez is missing the start of the season after testing positive and is dealing with inflammation of his heart muscle. Braves closer Will Smith is finally symptom-free after first testing positive for the virus a month ago. The Braves are also without both of their catchers on Opening Day as both displayed symptoms of the virus.

COVID-19 can spread quickly among people spending a lot of time in close contact with each other, and the Miami Marlins are living proof of that. As of Sunday afternoon, four different Marlins players have tested positive for the virus and are pulled from future games as the team is experiencing a mini outbreak. Out of an abundance of caution, the team will be staying in Philadelphia overnight, despite being scheduled to start a series Monday night in Miami against the Orioles.

The bulk of the data that is available at this point seems to suggest that a large number of people who contract the virus end up being asymptomatic, and many of those who do display symptoms end up having a mild case. However, some early studies from Europe and Asia suggest that even those with mild cases are having abnormalities that show up in their chest radiographs upon recovery, including lung scarring. There is still very much that is unknown about this virus, and the long term effects of it probably won’t be fully understood for another several years. Is playing baseball in 2020 worth career-ending repercussions for a player or, worse yet, the death of someone?

MLB and the union think that the financial rewards far outweigh the health risks to everyone involved.

Provisions were negotiated for players to opt-out of the season if they so desired, and several notable players have done so, such as Buster Posey, David Price, and Nick Markakis. This is obviously a luxury that is significantly easier for players of their caliber, who have millions in career earnings in the bank. It is much harder for a first or second-year player to justify the financial cost of opting out of the season, especially one that could see an increased opportunity for playing time as more stars inevitably test positive along with the implementation of the universal DH and expanded rosters. Less financially secure players and the daily support staff for games are not on the same footing to fairly judge the risks and rewards of participating in the abbreviated season.

No one should have to worry about sacrificing their financial security to guarantee the health and safety of their family.

The failures of our state, local, and federal leadership in providing an adequate safety net that would allow people to take the necessary steps to slow the spread is not a justification for nonessential businesses, especially professional sports, to open back up and put their employees at risk for the sake of a paycheck. Leagues like the NFL, MLB, and NBA had an opportunity to be leaders within the community by using their political weight to lobby politicians to increase aid to those affected by the virus. Still, instead, they focused on minimizing their losses.

Credit: Padres

The NBA and MLS have elected to move all their operations for the rest of the season to what is being referred to as a “bubble” on the property of the Disney World Resort in Florida. This resort recently reopened to the public in a state seeing some of the highest rates of spread in the nation. Teams are assigned to specific hotels, league and team personnel are forbidden from leaving the bubbles, and COVID tests are conducted regularly. With plenty of entertainment, pools, and even an onsite barbershop, it seems like an ideal situation. The problem is that a bubble such as this is only secure if it has no holes, and this bubble has a few hundred.

The staff who work at the resort are not required to stay on-site. Every day they go home, do their grocery shopping, and go to bars and restaurants that are open in Florida. The next day they come back to work, and everyone living within the bubble has the potential to be exposed to any of hundreds of possible new carriers of the virus. What exactly is the point of a bubble that has so many people going in and out of it every day?

The leagues operating in Florida have created another huge problem that is sure to spread nationwide as more professional sports restart. The high frequency of their testing for such a large number of personnel is overwhelming labs. Tests coming from leagues are automatically jumped to the front of the line at these labs, bypassing tests for everyday people that are being sent from hospitals, clinics, and temporary test sites. In Florida, both the NBA and MLS were having their tests conducted by BioReference Laboratories. The state of Florida was using this same lab, and, according to a report from the LA Times, the state had to start waiting nearly a week to get results back from their tests while the leagues were receiving their results the same day. It is morally reprehensible for the leagues to be given priority for their tests over everyone else. At a time when we’re being told that sports coming back will bring us together, their operations are being prioritized over the rest of us. Since leagues can only operate by getting these expedited results, this problem will only become worse over the coming weeks.

The nation is currently facing a second wave of the virus, brought on by premature reopenings of several nonessential business sectors, and the return of professional sports and the close contact and travel associated with it will only exacerbate this problem. Several states are already allowing fans to return to live sporting events, and MLB has not yet ruled out the possibility of allowing fans in the stands in states with eased restrictions. The economic boom that will give a region will surely entice more jurisdictions to lift restrictions sooner than they should.

Sports were one of the first industries to shut down in the United States because of just how nonessential they are for the continuation of our daily lives. If leagues can not find a way to keep their employees safe while also allowing for fair treatment of the rest of the population when it comes to accessing and receiving the results of tests, then they should not be one of the first industries to come back.

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